Somalia: Lights and shadows

PHOTO | COURTESY Veteran Somalia watcher and former co-ordinator of the UN Monitoring Group for Eritrea and Somalia, Matt Bryden.

Ongoing efforts to build a lasting peace in Somalia represent one of the greatest challenges facing the Horn of Africa with implications for all of Somalia’s neighbours and countries further afield. How has the government performed so far?

Veteran Somalia watcher and former co-ordinator of the UN Monitoring Group for Eritrea and Somalia, Matt Bryden, spoke to Sunday Nation correspondent Rashid Abdi on this issue and the question of the deadlock over Jubaland, which has become a hot-button issue in Mogadishu and Kismayu.

Q: How would you rate the government’s overall performance in the last 11 months?

A: I think the government came in with a great deal of goodwill and optimism and has set out a very ambitious programme. And one of the problems in setting out such an ambitious programme is that it has, obviously, not been able to meet all of those expectations.

The Six-Pillar Strategy is very broad, and it requires much greater capacity than the government possesses. Most of the objectives the government has set for itself will not be realised in the near-term or even in the medium-term. These objectives will require years (to achieve).

So, there is disillusionment. There is criticism that the government has failed to meet those objectives.

More importantly though, I think the government has lost track of some of its core responsibilities under the provisional constitution. The Somali Federal Government’s (SFG) predecessors — the Transitional Federal Governments that have succeeded each other over few years since 2000 — all failed to accomplish any of the tasks required to set up a stable government.

The constitution is incomplete; the structure of the state is not complete; there is no electoral system yet in place. And so with little more than 36 months remaining in its term of office, it is incumbent upon the SFG to complete all of these tasks.

If you consider that it will take at least 12 months — more realistically 18 — to prepare and conduct elections and a constitutional referendum, then we have 18 months remaining in which the government must complete the groundwork. And unless it is able to focus on those tasks with laser-like concentration, then the SFG is going to reach the end of its term of office without having done what it needs to do under the constitution.

Q: Running out of time, perhaps, but isn’t there a sense too the government may be also complicating matters for itself by fighting over issues that, arguably, distract it from concentrating on those more critical core objectives you have just outlined? I am thinking here of Jubaland? What in your view would be the best way to resolve the Jubaland deadlock?

A: The Jubaland issue has become, unexpectedly, the issue on which this government has chosen to fight for its platform, for its agenda and for its term of office. It is an extremely dangerous and divisive issue for a number of reasons.

The Jubaland dispute revives the clan-based narrative of Hawiye-Darood contestation that fuelled horrific violence in the early days of the civil war. And it involves geopolitical competition between those that believe the government of Somalia should be more closely tied to Igad and the African Union and those that believe the government should look towards the Arab League, the Organisation of Islamic Conference as well as new, non-traditional international partners — which is generating serious friction within the Igad region.

But most importantly, Jubaland is a distraction. The government cannot afford the time and energy to become embroiled in a battle over Jubaland, and I believe it should avoid becoming party to one. The Federal Government has the opportunity to rise above this and to leave such disputes over federalism to the Independent Boundaries and Federation Commission that is to be established by Parliament.

On the other hand, the Jubaland initiative which, to some extent, represents the desire of the people of southern Somalia to have their own regional government is, without question, incomplete, and is based on only one of several legitimate, but very different, interpretations of the federal constitution.

What is needed is a dialogue where the Federal Government can engage with the Jubaland authorities to find ways to enlarge participation in the government that has been recently declared, to discuss the distribution of powers and responsibilities between Mogadishu and Kismayo, and to insist that the final structure of any Jubaland administration will be ultimately resolved under the auspices of an independent and credible boundaries and federation commission.

I think if the Jubaland leadership would agree to enlarge their political base and to accept that the commission will ultimately be able to modify whatever has been agreed before the end of the SFG’s term of office, and before the federal constitution is ratified, then I believe we would be on our way to finding the middle ground.

Q: The Somalia-Somaliland dialogue has been mooted for a while now and preparations are under way for a new round of talks despite the recent ill-tempered row over airspace and aviation issues. How do you assess overall prospects and what would be the outcome?

A: The dialogue between the SFG and before it the TFG and Somaliland is a very positive step. This is the first time a government in Mogadishu and an administration in Hargeisa have recognised one another as parties to a dispute and that they have something to discuss. The fact that the ice has been broken and they are talking to each other is a very important development.

However, it is extremely difficult and the greatest risk in this dialogue is trying to move too fast and arriving inadvertently at a point of disagreement, rupture and recriminations.

So, it is very important that these talks proceed, initially, on a technical basis, exploring common ground, where they look primarily at those issues that are of mutual concern — principally security, airspace, maritime space, commerce, economic issues and the movement of people and goods. These are the kind of things that are happening anyway, but could be formally agreed and codified between them.

When it comes to political issues between them, there is a dichotomy — a diabolical paradox. Both governments see themselves as constitutionally bound to uphold the rule of law.

For Somaliland, that is respect for the declaration of independence in 1991. For the SFG, that is respect for the unity and territorial integrity of Somalia, which is recognised by the AU, the UN and the broader international community. For either of these authorities to shift from those positions would be political suicide. And so neither is able to engage in a political dialogue that leads to an unfavourable predetermined outcome, one way or another.

I think the only way they are going to be able to talk about final status is if the outcome remains open, because peaceful resolution of the unity issue can only be achieved through mutual consent — not coercion.